It's one of the most familiar stories in the realm of horror cinema: a studio purchases a solid indie horror film, makes a pretty penny on the deal, and then settles down for a sequel parade. Paramount did it with Friday the 13th and then Paranormal Activity, Lionsgate did it with Saw... and it sure looked like they were about to franchise the heck out of Daniel Stamm's The Last Exorcism (which earned strong reviews and solid box office), but for some reason the sequel arrives courtesy of CBS Films. I've strayed from the original point: once a low-budget horror film rakes in some huge profits the sequels are inevitable, and that even holds true for horror movies that have the word "last" in the title. Three years after The Last Exorcism comes, of course, The Last Exorcism Part II -- and I bet it makes just enough money to warrant a Part 3, even if it is one that's released straight to DVD.
Co-produced by the horror-obsessed Eli Roth and boasting a fantastic lead performance by Ashley Bell, The Last Exorcism Part II is, unfortunately, a severely mixed bag. The movie is shot in lovely fashion, for example, but it also suffers from a languid pace. Most of the performances and some of the scary bits are suitably strong, but they're used in service of a plot that's been rehashed, revisited, and retold since (at least) Brian De Palma's Carrie -- and that was in 1976. Director Ed Gass-Donnelly is clearly interested in presenting a delicate character study that focuses on a wounded young woman trapped in an awful situation, but the approach quickly goes from admirably restrained to frankly... kinda dull.
To its credit, the sequel does dare to drop the "found footage" approach that the first Last Exorcism employed. As one of the few admirers of first-person / shaky-cam horror flicks, I was actually a little disappointed, but the change does allow the director and cinematographer Brendan Steacy to compose some rather attractive frames. (Note an early scene in which Ms. Bell peers down a hallway as she's led to her new bedroom. Lovely work all around.) Part 2 picks up right where we left off: the spiritually beleaguered Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell) has been found in the woods, so she's shuttled off to a halfway house full of troubled young women and a plainly well-intentioned therapist.
And that's pretty much where the dreariness sets in. Nell's slow introduction into normal society runs way too long, yet the horror sequences are cut in truly sloppy fashion (probably to keep the PG-13 rating intact). The other girls at the shelter start out as legitimately interesting minor characters, but then they're simply dropped once act three kicks in. The finale does, logically, manage to produce a little bit of energy and (at least) one cool shock, but those are minor rewards that evaporate too quickly. Were it not for the consistently fascinating work by Ashley Bell, a few stretches of Last Exorcism II would be truly yawn-inducing.
Kudos to the filmmakers for not turning the flick into an occult-flavored slasher flick set in a "troubled girls" house, but a horror sequel needs a bit more meat on its bones than just "unhappy girl wanders around, sees visions that nobody else can see, and gingerly dips her toe into a real life." Last Exorcism II does add a slightly more sexual wrinkle to the typical occult story trappings, but aside from a fantastic lead performance and a few decent chills, there's nothing here that a seasoned horror fan hasn't seen before. None of the ostensible surprises are surprising, and once the scary stuff starts hitting the screen, very little of it feels particularly novel or exciting. This is not an example of people churning out a cheap sequel with no craft or effort; it's an earnest and well-made character-based horror flick that's simply not all that interesting.